The Games Climbers Cannae Play...

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Iain Simpson - 02/12/2002

A recent trip to the Peak district brought back home the memories of some previous climbs that I have written about in my own diary. The type of climbs you never forget because of the fight required to get up them. For us mere mortals there is only one characteristic in all of these fights and that is the duel between the climber and a crack. The definition of a crack in climbing terms is simple: a line or narrow opening; a fissure or chink. But delve deeper and there seem to be some uncanny and appropriate meanings as well e.g. a sharp resounding blow, an attempt or try at something, and my favourite, to collapse emotionally under stress. Of course to 'crack up' or have 'cracked' equally describe various states I have been in following crack climbs. Maybe it is just coincidental but I think that in the development of the word 'crack', a frustrated Scottish climber must have been involved. My fascination with cracks began about 5 years ago when I had my first outing onto the rock of the year. As I was getting married that year I hadn't been out much, due to the planning and trips back home it was May before I started. However I had been going to the climbing wall every week leading 5bs which I felt satisfied with. I was also inspired by many of the stories I had recently read in 'Games Climbers Play', and my strategy for attacking a climb meant pressing hard on the pedal when the going gets tough, only to place gear when a suitable rest comes about. To say I was "mad for it" was an understatement.

We (Andris Ladusans, a Yorkshire man whom I taught alongside) were at Stanage Edge, Plantation End, and Andy chose a 16 metre VS to start on called Fern Crack. The route was obvious, a steepish bottom to top crack, which looked to have excellent jamming opportunities and jamming was a major weakness at the time... The start was through a 2 metre cornered bulge which I strenuously laybacked, before getting a fist / arm jam to get myself upright breathing heavily. A more slabby section of the crack led to the next steepening and some protection. Now I battled and fought and blew and grunted my way up the next section before I reached a Godsend chockstone at 13 metres which gave a breather, but my efforts to gain more height proved fruitless as I ran out of steam. Never before had I burnt out so quickly on a route. My forearms were concrete, the heart rate ten to the dozen and my eyes bulging and stinging from the floods of sweat. The fight was over but not from a sucker punch, more a barrage of incompetent technique. I was thankful of the top rope, when without having the energy to shout a warning, the crack and I parted company. I hung there gutted. Arms flopped, head thumped into the rock trying to get my breath and arms back to normal. You could say I collapsed emotionally under stress. What an embarrassment. Was I really this bad? I blamed the book 'Games Climbers Play' for whipping me up into some form of belief that I too, could be great. All the old stories of Hob nail boots, ropes around the waist, foot to the floor etc. Thus I concluded those pioneers were crackers and I am a mere mortal. I continued shocked, and managed to get up without any more rests but completely disillusioned. I am sure we have all felt this way sometime, but was there a crack involved? As for the route, it is brilliant, fantastic and pure classic gritstone. In other words it's a classy bitch (sorry all you P.C. readers), like Joan Collins or better for me Naomi Campbell, for the ladies perhaps Antonio Banderas, (I'm trying to cover all angles here). Give her an inch and she'll walk all over you, spit you out and leave you feeling shocked but going back for more. For the remainder of that day, confidence sapped, I backed of leading Inverted V, another VS. I didn't feel right about it which was just as well as the helicopter that we saw earlier in the day, was for someone who fell off it. So I went down a couple of grades and did some other routes but I felt very humbled.

Nonetheless a seed had been sown which was to grow, and now as much as I still come across desperate crack climbs, I absolutely love them. The strange thrutching required, the belief that squeezing your fist into a crack seems like a sensible hold (or non hold), the twisting of the fingers to lock of on a finger crack, and the mechanical aspect of twisting and camming in a hand jam. These are all methods I have practiced when seconding, and then executed with great pleasure on a route. I hasten to add however, that I am an average Scottish crack climber and by no means an expert. Down there, you can have six gritstone crags within a 10 mile radius! In Scotland we don't have the same abundance of crack climbs as on Gritstone, but there are plenty of lines which lend themselves to the techniques e.g. Aberdour has The Beast, Conquistador Crack, Hallelujah Wall and Eureka all with perfect jamming opportunities. My favourite route at Rosyth is that great sandbag Cathy, only because folk try it without jamming. Limekilns has superb finger cracks and even this years favourite dolerite crag Cambusbarron, has Easy Contract and Doobie Brothers both with great jamming on them. Wherever we go climbing we will be confronted with the opportunity to jam and if we don't then perhaps the climb will feel 2 grades harder.

Conveniently this brings me to the recent trip and a route called Right Hand Crack VS 4b, at Brimham in North Yorkshire. This time Conehead chose it as a starter which surprised me as this guy can crimp and pull on weenies, but avoids jamming at all costs. He failed gloriously last year on The File VS 4c, a classic grit test piece which requires competent jamming, and so with this in mind and having had a good look at the route, I perched myself atop a boulder waiting for the show to begin. I choose 'show' wisely as I had the video camera ready to capture an impressive display of climbing, or a real good desperate struggle. Without wishing harm, I hoped for the latter as it makes for better viewing. Dyble coped well to start with and he was even jamming. However at about halfway up, the route turned into a bit of a horror show (I thought all sandbags were in Northumberland) requiring consecutive moves on jams through a bulge to a break, an even harder slanting crack and a finish that for the grade could only be described as ridiculous! You can tell when conehead is struggling by how many times he says "deary me". Having had a good middle class up-bringing, he doesn't swear much in extremis. In fact if he ever does a hard new route I suggest 'deary me' for the name. Anyhow, the ever vigilant belayer, Gentleman Jim Shanks, was only called into action the once to give Dyble a rest, whereas I had 3 rests and a lot of expletives. Shanksy (age 50 plus) of course, flashed it! As if to reiterate our incompetence at climbing cracks, 2 youths dispatched it without so much as an "eee.. by gum". Looking around I thought "We're crap", and once again that humbling feeling cloaked me, and off we trod to the next cracker.

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